Release Date: June 4th, 1953 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: George Stevens Actors: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon De Wilde, Jack Palance, Ben Johnson, Elisha Cook Jr.
t’s interesting to see a movie like “Shane” in Technicolor, with bright, vibrant colors that couldn’t more greatly contrast the rift between doers of good and evil depicted within – who are so clearly black and white (the cinematography incidentally won an Oscar). Little Joey, through whom the audience perceives much of the action, represents innocence and curiosity; Shane is justice, brandished in the most honorable, valiant way possible (while still involving gunplay); and Calloway is wickedness incarnate, serving to destroy the efforts of decency. Even the music introduces which characters represent gallantness or ignobility, with hard work and good deeds rewarded by rousing tunes and dastardly actions preceded by troubling violins.
A lone drifter with a quick draw, Shane (Alan Ladd) casually rides onto aging Joe Starrett’s (Van Heflin) property, a small farm operated only by his family, which includes his wife Marian (Jean Arthur) and their young son Joey (Brandon De Wilde). Their land borders with many other neighbors who are being terrorized by the Ryker brothers, cattlemen who raid and destroy the tracts in an effort to drive the settlers out. In the nearby lawless town, the farmers are ostracized, not excluding Shane, who agrees to work for the Starrett’s for a spell. Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson) leads the pack of tormentors, and is the first to confront the stranger in a bar, where he throws a drink on Shane’s new shirt. But the soft-spoken newcomer leaves without a fight, demonstrating his ability to keep his cool.
Joe sets up a meeting with the local sodbusters, who all agree to stick to their claims, even though the seven or so men don’t stand much of a chance against the Ryker gang. During the gathering, it’s also revealed that Shane was humiliated in the ginmill and did nothing about it, preventing anyone from guessing at his considerable capabilities with a firearm. But Marion sees that Joey is starting to get attached to the idea of Shane being a gunslinger, and asks him not to grow fond of the outsider’s presence. Sure enough, trouble continues, and Shane is caught in one of the lengthiest of all movie fistfights, which segues into a full on bar brawl. Eventually, Ryker hires Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), a professional gunfighter from Cheyenne, to do his intimidation and dirty work.
Joey idolizes Shane for what he represents: a man who fights for what is right. He’s also one of the few willing to stand up against adversity, testing and showing the limits of inactivity in the face of injustice; as a perpetual wanderer (not unlike Ethan Edwards of “The Searchers” or the ronin samurai of Akira Kurosawa’s works), he’s something of a messiah, materializing from place to place to impart a moral message. Where Joe must act responsibly, for the sake of his son, Shane can be incautious and heroic. The two adults trade leadership attributes of pride, courage, manliness, and fighting other’s fights, which clash with safety, sensibility, and gravitas. The boy continues to ask questions and bring to the audience’s attention what the gunman should do versus what he explains as being the proper decision, resulting in a bit of humor, wide-eyed (or dumbfounded) expressions, and a very obvious lesson in right and wrong. Often, the examples are too apparent, lacking the subtlety of future movies that tackle similar themes (“The Wild Bunch” and “Unforgiven” would be on the completely opposite end of the spectrum). Fortunately, the legal rights to the land are murky, giving Ryker a bit of depth, even though he’s specifically the antagonist.
“A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it,” states Shane, who sums up the purpose of the tool and his method of operating it. Although the film contains all the basic elements of a Western, including shootouts and flailing fists, many of the characters are quite opposed to guns, and those who carry them are the ones with questionable motives, giving the picture a touch of drama and pathos. But Shane isn’t too far removed from the role model design of Atticus Finch, in that he provides an excellent apotheosis of heroism – one who knows when others will be influenced by his actions and when his purpose has ceased. In the denouement, he also recognizes that his mission is to interfere, and that when the inevitable showdown is over, staying would no longer be of benefit to the people he has helped. “Shane” features one of the most quoted, memorable, and poignant endings of any movie, lending to a general identification with (and celebration of) a conclusion that overshadows much of the substance of the themes – as well as the faults, many of which originate with child actor De Wilde.
– Mike Massie